Everyone knows Washington State football coach Mike Leach likes to do things differently. Way differently. Leach and his team Friday will make the 45-minute drive through sprawling wheat fields to Lewiston, ID, where the Cougars will spend their first ten days of fall camp practicing at Sacajawea Junior High School.
No, that isn’t a typo, or Leach deadpanning in response to a question about fall camp. The Cougars are going to practice in Nez Perce County at the home of the Braves. Construction continues — as it will during the season — on a $61 million football operations building in Martin Stadium’s west end zone, and Leach would like to escape the noise created from nearby cranes moving huge slabs of concrete.
He said Thursday in a teleconference that players seemed excited about the idea of getting away from Pullman, though he admitted to not caring had they voiced their objections.
“I don’t know. I didn’t really ask them,” Leach said of the players’ reaction to the news. “Comfort zone is not exactly the priority around here. I just think it’s a good place where we can get good work in.”
“The overall reaction is that most guys seem excited about it,” he added.
Leach seemed excited about the prospects of the Cougars improving after last year’s 3-9 (1-8 Pac-12) record, finishing at the bottom of the Pac-12 North. The nadir came when WSU surrendered a 17-point fourth quarter lead Sept. 22 in an embarrassing 35-34 loss to otherwise winless Colorado at Martin Stadium.
“I think we’re significantly better, especially the attitude,” he said. “Just our work ethic is significantly higher. Some of it is just learning how hard you can work and how hard the guy next to you can work. You go up there and work really hard but notice the guy next to you is working really hard — then you’ll try to measure up.”
QB Connor Halliday enters fall camp as the favorite to beat out redshirt freshman QB Austin Apodaca for the starting nod. Leach said during Pac-12 media day that he was impressed with Apodaca’s progression during spring practices but can’t discount Halliday’s experience. He reiterated that Thursday.
“He continued to polish his skills. He is the most experienced quarterback we have, which helps a little bit too,” Leach said of Halliday. “He continued to improve what he does.”
Splitting time in 2012 with QB Jeff Tuel, Halliday appeared in nine games and was inconsistent but explosive. He routinely fired great throws through tight coverage, but other ill-advised decisions through the air resulted in turnovers. He completed 52.2 percent of his passes, totaling 1,878 yards, 15 touchdowns and 13 interceptions.
“Halliday continued to improve his ability to utilize the dimension of the whole offense,” Leach said. “I think he is a little better at reading things and utilizing the weapons around him.”
Per custom, Leach will split the reps at quarterback early in camp well before the Cougars begin their regular season Aug. 31 against Auburn at Jordan-Hare Stadium.
“I thought (Austin) did real well,” he said. “You’re talking about a guy that hadn’t taken any real reps with the ones, but went out there and had a real good spring. I thought he got better as he went along.”